Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Sports

March 23, 2013

County softball teams ready to hit the ground running

Green grass and sunny days have a way of inspiring dreams. With spring comes the renewal of the outdoors, and the renewal of hopes for local kids playing softball.

Eastern and Western are thinking about making noise in the state tournament this season with junior-heavy, veteran clubs, but have to get through difficult sectionals just to make their voices heard. Kokomo and Northwestern are welcoming new coaches, and Taylor hopes a young crew can climb back into contention.

Below are looks at the five Howard County schools, in order of record last season.

Eastern

The Comets posted a solid 20-9 season and were ranked 10th in Class 2A at the end of the season when they lost their sectional opener to three-time sectional champ Tipton. Nearly the entire team returns this season.

“The strengths are the experience base,” Eastern coach Jerry Haines said. “I’ve got about five girls that are three-year starters [including this season]. You can’t really replace that experience. I think one of the real keys will be can we get everybody hitting the ball? It seems we can get four or five pretty good hitters but we need those other slots hitting. That’s going to be probably the challenge, to get a full slate of batters that can hit the ball.”

The entire infield returns minus the catching spot, and two thirds of the outfield.

The all-junior infield includes Lizzy Mavrick (.304 batting average last season), second baseman Ally Oyler (.343), shortstop Brooke Stout (.347) and third baseman Kirstin Jones.

Junior Abby Oyler returns to the pitching circle after posting a 1.50 ERA last year. At the plate she hit .333. Sophomore Sarah Summers (.403) takes over at catcher.

Senior Kelsey Russell is in left field, senior Quinlyn Hochstedler will play in right or center, and senior Chandler McMain and Haley Johnston are up for the remaining spot. Hochstedler is also the backup pitcher.

Also on the varsity are juniors Rachel Wingate (outfield or baserunning) and Kaytlynn Lawson, and sophomores Maddie Vint and Alyssa Haalck.

“We’re going to be dependent on Abby Oyler for staying healthy,” Haines said. “She’ll carry a big load for us. If she falters, then we’re going to fall off in the pitching because we don’t have anybody as strong as her. She’s proved she can go pretty much the whole season the last two years. If she’s strong and my infield is intact ... I really think they should be a pretty tough team.

“They’ve won the conference the last two years, tied it last year, we’ve struggled to get out of the sectional with [pitcher Shelby] Hursh from Tipton, that’ll be another challenge this year from them. If we can get out of the sectional, they could go a long way in the state tournament, but they’ve got to get out of the sectional. Tipton and Madison-Grant have been barriers to doing that the last few years.”

Western

The Panthers finished 18-11 and fell in the sectional final. With a dozen players back, the Panthers are openly looking for a better season.

“This is probably the deepest group I’ve had since I’ve been at Western,” coach Jim Clouse said. “I feel like I’m deep at every position. It always comes down to pitching. I feel like I’m in pretty good shape there. I have Erika Beeler returning. She pitched 94 innings last year with a 1.19 ERA and 131 strikeouts. We’ll count on her a lot this year.”

Last season, Beeler shared time with Madison Hurst, who has moved to Frontier. Beeler will be backed up by freshmen Cali Shepherd and Brooke Strunk. Senior Bri Childress (.340 batting average last season) is the catcher, with freshman Abby Renken as backup.

Junior Caitlyn O’Neal is at first base, senior Morgan Grove or Strunk will be at second, junior Evie Glover (.321) is at shortstop, and sophomore Jenna Wiechmann (.343) is at third, but can also play second. Sophomore Shelby Gilbert (.302) can also play third.

Junior Carley O’Neal (.293) will take an outfield spot. Junior Haleigh Conaway is in right, and junior Kiersten Durbin, Wiechmann or Gilbert can play in left. Junior Raven Black, who played at Taylor as a freshman, can play outfield, first, or pitch.

Possibilities for designated hitter are juniors Mady Anderson and Kaysie Mulkey.

“I think defensively we should be really good,” Clouse said. “We return really all of our starting defense other than left field — Kate Johnson, who graduated. There’s a lot of competition internally for those positions even though we returned most of our starters.”

Clouse said it’s important that the young pitchers behind Beeler develop into dependable options, and wants the team to hit better than last season. Those are keys to get the Panthers where they want to be by late May.

“We’ve been disappointed to be quite honest in our performance in the MIC the last few years,” Clouse said. “We won it back-to-back in ’08 and ’09 and haven’t been in contention since. That’s certainly one of our goals this year, to get back into the MIC. And I think this team has a chance to go far in the tournament.”

Kokomo

The Wildkats are breaking in a new coach with an experienced corps of players back from a 13-12 team.

Mike Susong  joins the squad as the new coach, taking over for Lisa Tate. Susong is the boys basketball JV coach and has been coaching travel softball squads.

“It’s been very exciting,” Susong said. “We’ve got a good coaching staff that was held over from the previous regime with Lisa — Jeff Skaggs and Ken Parry and they do a fantastic job of working with the girls. I’ve really been impressed with how hard they work and their work ethic. These girls are really hungry, they want to work. They want to be successful, they want to win. I’ve been very happy with their attitudes and efforts so far.”

Susong said his preference as a coach is to be aggressive on the basepaths and play in a hard-nosed style.

He inherits a team that looks strong defensively.

“Defense is obviously going to be a strength of ours,” Susong said. “We really, really are going to be good up the middle, and on the corners. The infield is going to be very good, the outfield is going to have a lot of speed and will take away some hits. And I think we’ll have a good combination of speed and power at the plate.”

Moving through the infield, sophomore Miranda Ogle is at first (.333 batting average last season), senior Kendra Ryker (.338) will play second or shortstop, with freshman Cathy Skaggs and junior Schuyla Sharp also able to step into those spots. Senior Alisa Cook (.286) will man third when not pitching, and freshman Ramsey Hurlock can play the spot when Cook is in the circle.

Seniors Ashley Frayer and Shelby Troyer are up for the catcher spot. Both saw time as backstops last season and one may also DH.

In the outfield, speedy senior Grace College signee Samantha Johnson (.308, 12 steals) returns to center field, sophomore Paris McCullum (.322) will take right or left, and Hurlock, sophomore Sarah Haughn, junior Kamryn Sharp and junior Summer Lovegrove are other outfield options.

Junior Rajestaney Small is a baserunning specialist.

Cook (2.63 ERA in 16 innings) and Kamryn Sharp (2.37, 38 1/3 innings) are the pitchers. Both saw time last season behind graduated primary hurler Christine Skaggs.

“We have two pitchers who have logged varsity time, so they’re experienced,” Susong said. “... That’s the least experience we have right now. They both have a really good understanding of what we want to do pitching-wise. We’re not going to overpower people, but we want to throw a lot of ground balls, let our defense make the plays.”

Northwestern

Former JV coach Jordan Dyer moves up to take over as skipper this season, with the bulk of the squad back after an 11-14 season.

He wants to see an aggressive squad that puts pressure on opponents.

“Fast — that was my main emphasis when I came in was outfield and infield, we’re going to be fast and aggressive,” Dyer said. “We like to get after it on the bases and since Day 1 I’ve said ‘100 percent of your effort, 100 percent speed all the time.’ If that’s all you can give, that’s all you can give, but if you’re not giving your best effort we’re going to run into a problem.”

Dyer has a lot of returning players to work with.

“We have all returning varsity players except for one,” Dyer said. “The game-time experience, game-situation experience [are strengths]. Physically, I would say that we put a lot of focus in our batting, in our hitting game this offseason. Our swings look a lot better.”

Senior Maddie Heflin is back as the primary pitcher (3.1 ERA in 117 innings last season) and can play first when not pitching. She batted .379 last season. Senior Sam Brown (.319 batting average) returns as catcher.

Senior Libby Hansen is moving to first after playing a lot of outfield last season, freshman Kerrigan Bartrum is at second, junior Kelsey Richards is back at shortstop, and senior Hannah Beachy is at third.

Senior Kenzi Ahnert is in left, sophomore Kindra Gingerich (.382) moves to center field to solidify the outfield, and sophomore Elizabethe O’Donnell is in right.

Also, junior Brandi Harmon can play in the outfield, junior Kaitlyn Catron can play outfield or third, and junior Makayla Keating is the backup catcher.

One of Dyer’s points of emphasis is for the Tigers to get sharper and faster in their defensive fundamentals. That can pay off in outs.

He says the teams needs to work on “game speed in terms of ball release time and infield play, getting the ball out of the mitt and making close plays. I can’t count how many close plays we didn’t get last year because we were a step slow or a throw pulled our foot by half an inch.”

Taylor

The Titans hope to rebound from a 6-23 season with a young group that has more experience than expected from a team stocked with freshmen.

“We’re going to be very young this year, but we’re going to be very athletic, very competitive,” Taylor coach Shane Arnold said. “I’m really impressed with their work ethic and their determination to be as good as they can be.

“It’s the first time in my time at Taylor that we have several girls, probably 10, that play travel ball or summer ball of some sort.”

With only a handful of players back, the Titans will put a lot of young players in new spots.

Sophomore Desiree’ Hancock, junior Breanna Wright, and freshmen Brie Boehler and Jade Boruff are up for the spot at third base. Freshmen Cami Hansen and Valary Farmer, sophomore Alanna Hendrickson and junior Taylor Mosier are up for the spot at shortstop. Freshmen Savannah Delgado, Hannah Mullinax and sophomore McKenna Deckard are candidates at second. Junior Jacquelyn Rhoades moves from short to first to solidify the corner, backed up by freshmen Rachel Hafley, Emma Williams, and junior Haley Campbell.

Deckard, Delgado, freshman Allison Shepard and junior Nia Taper can catch. Deckard (.305 batting average) was the backstop last season. Three freshmen, Hafley, Williams and Hansen, will make up the new pitching staff.

Mosier is likely to return to the spot in center field. Freshman Lydia Owens and Mullinex are other options at center, or for the other outfield spots. Also in the mix for left or right field are Farmer, Campbell and Shepard.

“A lot of us talk during the offseason — coaches, parents — a lot of people think because I say ‘hey we’re going to be young,’ well, you expect to lose,” Arnold said. “I don’t expect to lose. My expectations and outlook for the team are very high. I think this team is going to have a learn-on-the-job mentality, but I think we’re going to compete and I think we could compete at a high level if we come together as a group.”

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